Michael Greenberg at the Mic
Date: November 14, 2017
Authors: Michael Greenberg, Joanne Jacobson and Diana Geffner-Ventura
Venue: Andaz Hotel, Wall Street
Free Drinks: yes (self-serve white wine, red wine)
Q & A - yes
Book signed - no
UE Check Number – benefits over
The only thing I can find to complain about at last night’s Pen Parentis reading at the Andaz Wall Street Hotel that featured memoirists Michael Greenberg, Joanne Jacobsen and Diana Geffner-Ventura was that there was no chance of being electrocuted at it.As the proprietor of New York City’s only readings blog that tells authors when they have droned on too long, I’ve learned to dismiss concerns about my physical well-being. I’ve come to enjoy the frisson of danger that often pops up on my daring expeditions into the far-flung corners of Brooklyn to attend readings.
But I didn’t need that bravado last night. Pen Parentis is a reading series and networking organization for parents who write. Founder M.M. De Voe moderated the reading at the posh hotel at the corner of Wall and Water streets. The lighting was subtle, the furnishings were tasteful, and it was, overall, a classy place.This made the Pen Parentis event a different experience from the reading I went to in the basement of Unnameable Books in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of the city’s primary literary borough, Brooklyn. There were puddles on the floor and a lot of wires hanging out of the wall, some of them nearly touching the puddles.
So it was an adjustment to attend an event in such a sophisticated setting. It reminded me of the time I went to the Russian Tea Room though the Andaz management didn’t supply me with a jacket.The evening’s theme was Health Matters and it was a consideration of how illnesses affect creative careers.
Greenberg read from his book about his daughter’s mental illness “Hurry Down Sunshine.” Geffner-Ventura’s material was about dealing with her husband’s brain cancer, while Jacobson’s presentation was the only one about becoming sick herself.All three readings were well-received. In the discussion that followed, the authors were asked if they felt the grimness of their material might limit its audience. But they agreed that the universality of such afflictions compensated for its potentially depressing subject matter.
Greenberg said that he wrote “Hurry Down Sunshine” because there weren’t any other books that discussed the exact sequence of events he and his family went through.Jacobson, the author of the memoir “Hunger Artist: A Suburban Childhood,” talked about how she was set to help her mother deal with aging and sickness, but was surprised to find herself confronted with her own mortality when she got sick.
Gefffner-Ventura’s selection described what happened when she tried to take a break from her everyday attendance at her husband’s bedside, only to have to run back to the city to deal with a crisis in his care.One of the points that came up in the discussion after the authors read, skillfully moderated by De Voe, was about how great it is that with social media everybody who wants an audience can have one. Maybe I’m just bitter because I’ve been stuck at thirty-nine followers on Twitter for so long, but I noticed that Jacobson and Greenberg, the two most established writers on the program agreed that this was the case. I don’t recall Geffner-Ventura, the less established writer presenting at the salon, agreeing with this sentiment.
I don’t mean to speak for her, but for myself, I don’t think this is true. If you want to publish literary fiction or perhaps get anybody to read your memoir, you can tweet all you want, start a blog about your adventures going to readings and Snapchat your butt off, but I don’t think it will necessarily get you into the cool kids’ table in the cafeteria.The other thing is that Twitter has rotted my brain, but that’s a topic for another post.
As Doubleday’s senior editor Gerry Howard said in a piece he wrote for the Millions, there aren’t too many manuscripts that arrive unannounced and make a dent in the industry.“Over the past 70 years there has arisen, for reasons too complex to unpack here, an increasingly widespread and professionalized creative-writing industry, and just as the major college athletic programs groom and showcase top-tier talent for drafting by the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, so do the MFA programs groom and showcase top-tier literary talent for the New York publishing houses. There are these days about as many uncredentialled walk-ons in our literary fiction as there are walk-ons in major league baseball.”
Here Howard is talking about fiction, but I wonder if the same thing isn’t true for memoirs. I’d add that you need something more than social media to attract attention. Maybe it doesn’t have to come from an MFA program, but how important was Cheryl Stayed’s Rumpus column to the launching of her successful memoir “Wild?”
Since I liked the Pen Parentis event so much, I’m going to try to use it as the jumping off point for the next big lit world mystery to replace the question of who the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante is, now that she’s been outed. The new burning question should be, what are the contents of the gift bags authors receive at Pen Parentis salons?
I’d never been to a reading where the authors get gift bags before. I think the idea is you get to sell some books and you should be happy with that. But Pen Parentis honcho De Voe says “My gift bags are a closely guarded secret! We started the practice because I didn’t think it was fair that authors—who frankly work years to get where they are—usually get treated like marketing tools instead of like celebrities.”
It’s possible the authors have been sworn to silence because I’ve never heard any alums of the Pen Parentis readings like Darin Strauss or Jennifer Egan mention what their gift bags contained. Maybe these writers are hiding the value of the gifts from the IRS. C’mon, Darin, what’d you get?
But getting back to the contribution Pen Parentis and groups like it make to the city’s cultural scene, it is a noble goal to foster reading and support those readers who are writers in various stages of their careers.
When it comes to creating these communities of writers, it doesn’t really matter what the organizing principle is. For Pen Parentis, it is parents who write though you don’t have to be a parent to participate. Other groups like the identically initialed IAWA groups, that is, the Irish-American and the Italian-American writers’ organizations, also create this kind of network. So does the HIP Lit group in Bushwick (see post below w/ the good picture and witty caption).I’m grateful to be a member of one of the IAWAs and that Pen Parentis does the work it does. It’s worth the outer borough physical risks and facing agonizing choices like whether to go with the free red wine or the free white wine at luxury hotels on Wall Street to participate in these communities.